Innovations in Healthcare

Replenishing the Primary Care Physician Pipeline


A recent survey of nearly 1,000 students from three medical schools found that just 15% planned to become primary-care physicians, including 11.2% of first-year students.1

That startlingly low number might not be reflective of the whole country, and other national surveys have suggested significantly higher rates. But the responses underscore some important contributors beyond financial concerns that include a more negative overall view of PCPs’ work life compared to that of specialists. “Our data suggest that although medical school does not create these negative views of primary-care work life, it may reinforce them,” the authors write.

Conversely, the results suggest that time spent observing physicians could help break negative stereotypes about the ability to develop good relationships with patients, and that career plans might not be based on perceptions, but rather on values and goals. “The study reinforces the importance of admitting students with primary-care-oriented values and primary-care interest and reinforcing those values over the course of medical school,” the authors conclude.

“Maybe we’re not selecting medical students in the optimal way for what society needs,” says Elbert Huang, MD, associate professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. By emphasizing GPA and test scores, “maybe when you do that, you end with people who don’t want to actually take care of patients in primary care.”

Other studies suggest he’s on to something. Research conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Robert Graham Center found that students in rural medical schools are significantly more likely to go into rural healthcare and primary care than students in urban medical schools.

“The problem there is that we’ve cut the number of people from rural areas going to medical school by half over the last 20 years,” center director Robert Phillips, MD, MSPH, says. “A lot of students just don’t have the background to make them competitive.” Many students in minority communities face similar challenges.

Ed Salsberg, director of the National Center for Health Workforce Analysis in the Health Resources and Services Administration, says many newer osteopathic schools are positioning themselves in rural communities, helping them attract students who might not have gone to medical school otherwise.

Reaching back even earlier into the pipeline to help mentor elementary and high school students might be another way to help build capacity. Medical organizations also seem to be getting the message. New MCAT recommendations by the Association of American Medical Colleges, for example, place less emphasis on scientific knowledge in favor of a more holistic assessment of critical analysis and reasoning skills. The association also is encouraging medical schools to pay more attention to such personal characteristics as integrity and service orientation.

“That’s more of a long-term strategy, but I think it has an impact on who gets recruited to medical school,” Salsberg says.


  1. Phillips J, Weismantel D, Gold K, Schwenk T. How do medical students view the work life of primary care and specialty physicians? Fam Med. 2012;44(1):7-13.

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